Drinking Laws -- The legal drinking age throughout Central America is 18 (except in Honduras, where you have to be 21 to drink, but 18 to purchase alcohol), although it is often not enforced. Beer, wine, and liquor are all sold in most supermarkets and small convenience stores from Monday through Saturday. No liquor is sold on Good Friday or Easter Sunday or election days. If you're caught possessing, using, or trafficking drugs anywhere in the region, expect severe penalties, including long jail sentences and large fines.
Electricity -- Central American countries run on 110 volts, 60 Hz, the same as the United States and Canada. However, three-prong grounded outlets are not universally available. It's helpful to bring a three-to-two prong adapter. European and Asian travelers should bring adapters with any accompanying appliances. Be prepared for frequent blackouts, and bring surge protectors.
Internet Access -- Internet access is easy to find in the region, as even the smallest towns usually have at least one Internet center. Access usually costs 50¢ to $1 (25p-50p) per hour. Nearly every hotel has at least one computer with Internet access; some have dataports or Wi-Fi (usually in the hotel lobby or business center).
Insurance -- Medical Insurance -- For travel overseas, most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home.
As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you're traveling to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com; for general information on services, call the company's Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710.
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas.
Travelers from the U.K. should carry their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which replaced the E111 form as proof of entitlement to free/reduced cost medical treatment abroad (tel. 0845/606-2030; www.ehic.org.uk). Note, however, that the EHIC only covers "necessary medical treatment," and for repatriation costs, lost money, baggage, or cancellation, travel insurance from a reputable company should always be sought (www.travelinsuranceweb.com).
Travel Insurance -- The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information, for prices from more than a dozen companies.
U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a wide range of providers.
Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain's Consumers' Association recommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct (tel. 0870/033-9988; www.columbusdirect.net).
Trip-Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and State Department advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" cancellation coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages. For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com); Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com); and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
Language -- Spanish is by far the dominant language in the region, except in Belize, where English is spoken. You will also hear English spoken in the Bay Islands in Honduras, the Canal Zone in Panama, and more touristy destinations. The Caribbean coast has its own form of lilting creole that has West Indian roots. A number of indigenous languages have survived, most notably Mayan. See the individual destination chapters throughout this book for more info. It is also advisable to learn some basic Spanish before you travel here; we recommend picking up a copy of the Frommer's Spanish PhraseFinder & Dictionary.
Lost & Found -- Be sure to tell all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen and file a report at the nearest police precinct.
If you need emergency cash, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com).
Mail -- Every country in Central America varies regarding the price, efficiency, and speed of its mail service (known as correo). In general, expect it to take 2 weeks for your letter or postcard to reach home. If you're sending a parcel, a Customs officer may have to inspect it first. Theft is a common problem. Always try and send mail from a main post office and insist the envelope is stamped in front of you. It's wise to send things via registered post, though often the letter can be tracked as far as the border and no more. Private courier services are everywhere but most are expensive.
Newspapers & Magazines -- The Miami Herald (www.miamiherald.com) is probably the most widely available English-language paper about the region. The Costa Rican based Tico Times (www.ticotimes.net) is another. You can find both in most capital city downtown kiosks and airport newsstands.
Passports -- The websites listed below provide downloadable passport applications as well as the current fees for processing applications. For an up-to-date, country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the "International Travel" tab of the U.S. State Department at http://travel.state.gov.
For Residents of Australia -- You can pick up an application from your local post office or any branch of Passports Australia, but you must schedule an interview at the passport office to present your application materials. Call the Australian Passport Information Service at tel. 131-232, or visit the government website at www.passports.gov.au.
For Residents of Canada -- Passport applications are available at travel agencies throughout Canada or from the central Passport Office, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, ON K1A 0G3 (tel. 800/567-6868; www.ppt.gc.ca). Note: Canadian children who travel must have their own passport. However, if you hold a valid Canadian passport issued before December 11, 2001, that bears the name of your child, the passport remains valid for you and your child until it expires.
For Residents of Ireland -- You can apply for a 10-year passport at the Passport Office, Setanta Centre, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 (tel. 01/671-1633; www.irlgov.ie/iveagh). Those 17 and under, or 66 and older, must apply for a 3-year passport. You can also apply at 1A South Mall, Cork (tel. 21/494-4700) or at most main post offices.
For Residents of New Zealand -- You can pick up a passport application at any New Zealand Passports Office or download it from their website. Contact the Passports Office at tel. 0800/225-050 in New Zealand, or 04/474-8100, or log on to www.passports.govt.nz.
For Residents of the United Kingdom -- To pick up an application for a standard 10-year passport (5-year passport for children 15 and under), visit your nearest passport office, major post office, or travel agency or contact the United Kingdom Passport Service at tel. 0870/521-0410, or search its website at www.ukpa.gov.uk.
For Residents of the United States: Whether you're applying in person or by mail, you can download passport applications from the U.S. State Department website at http://travel.state.gov. To find your regional passport office, either check the U.S. State Department website or call the National Passport Information Center toll-free number (tel. 877/487-2778) for automated information.
Smoking -- Except for Panama, which recently banned smoking in all restaurants and bars, there are no government smoking bans in Central America at the moment. Private companies do not allow smoking in places like cinemas or long-distance buses, however. The region's better hotels and restaurants have nonsmoking rooms and areas, but in general you can still puff wherever you want.
Taxes -- VAT and Customs duties differ from country to country.
Time -- All of Central America is 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, except Panama, which is 5 hours behind. No countries observe daylight saving time.
Tipping -- Ten percent is the general rule for tipping in restaurants, though tips are sometimes included in bills. In hotels, tip bellhops at least $1 (50p) per bag ($2-$3/£1-£1.50 if you have a lot of luggage) and tip the chamber staff $1 to $2 (50p-£1) per day.
Toilets -- These are known as sanitarios, servicios sanitarios, or baños. They are marked damas (women) and hombres or caballeros (men). Throughout Central America, public restrooms are hard to come by. You will almost never find a public restroom in a city park or downtown area. In the towns and cities, it gets much trickier. One must count on the generosity of some hotel or restaurant. Same goes for most beaches. Most restaurants, and, to a lesser degree, hotels, will let you use their facilities, especially if you buy a soft drink or something. Bus and gas stations often have restrooms, but many of these are pretty grim. Don't flush toilet paper; put it in the trash bin.
Water -- The water in most major cities and tourist destinations throughout Central America is ostensibly safe to drink. However, many travelers react adversely to water in foreign countries, and it is probably best to drink bottled water and avoid ice or food washed with tap water throughout your visit to the region.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.